PARIS — Parents struggle to explain it to their kids. Ambassadors struggle to explain it to their governments. The only thing that's clear is that French politics is a mess.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party led one of the world's biggest economies for a decade and now, in the space of a week, has melted down into something that may never be put back together again.
A mediation effort Sunday failed to reconcile the Union for a Popular Movement party or figure out who's in charge, seven days after a disputed election for a new party leader. The conflict looks headed now for the courts. The outcome could reshape France's political landscape and eventually weigh on Europe's direction too.
Central to the dispute is debate among French conservatives over immigration and Islam in the country with Western Europe's largest Muslim population. The election a week ago split party members into those leaning toward the anti-immigrant far right, represented by Jean-Francois Cope, and those hewing to more centrist views, supporting Francois Fillon.
Cope, who led France's push to ban face-covering Islamic veils and talks of anti-white racism, was initially declared winner of the Nov. 19 election.
Then uncounted votes were discovered that could swing the vote in Fillon's favor.
Accusations of fraud swirled. Insults flew. The week wore on, and the party still had no clear leader.
On Sunday, a UMP commission that handles vote disputes met, then broke up in acrimony, the Sipa news agency reported.
Hope turned to former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, who said the dispute has been "irresponsible and disastrous" and convened both candidates Sunday night to try to mediate and keep the party he founded in one piece.
After the meeting, he tweeted, "The conditions for mediation are lacking. My mission is over."
Cope said the party commission should examine the complaints and declare a winner.
Fillon, whose supporters say that commission is too Cope-friendly, said he'd go to court instead to uncover "the truth of the results and return the voice to the party members." In a statement, he said Cope rejected the mediation effort and called him responsible for the party's "failure."
Cope and Fillon want to lead opposition to Socialist President Francois Hollande – and run for president themselves in 2017. Since Sarkozy lost elections in May in a wave of anti-austerity sentiment in May, France's presidency, parliament and most regional governments have all been under Socialist control.
The UMP fiasco has worried officials beyond France's borders as well. Sweden's ambassador, Gunnar Lund, tweeted, "I'm trying to explain to my government what's happening at the heart of the UMP. Not easy!"
In the European Union, Hollande's Socialists have pushed against public spending cuts for indebted countries that use the shared euro currency, and battled Britain over cutbacks in the EU budget.
A UMP collapse would benefit the Socialists in the short term. But some French commentators have expressed concern that the Socialists – who long suffered their own divisions and who still lack cohesion – need a robust opposition to focus their energies at a time when they need to be making tough decisions. Hollande's popularity is weak six months into his term, as the economy struggles and one in 10 workers is looking for a job.
Meanwhile, France's far right National Front is hoping to capitalize on the UMP's troubles and bring in new support from the more hard-right members of the conservative party. And a new centrist party, UDI, says it has already reaped benefits, winning new members over the past week amid increasing disillusion with the UMP.
All this means nostalgia for the charismatic but divisive Sarkozy is on the rise, with many conservatives hoping he returns to politics. In a sign of how low things have sunk in French politics, support for Sarkozy resurfaced even as he was named special witness in an investigation involving alleged illegal campaign cash that could see him face charges.
As the UMP's troubles dominated French media, the Europe-1 radio website published a guide Sunday for parents trying to explain it to their kids. One bit of advice: how to answer if your child asks, "Is the UMP a mafia?"